I studied Italian in Rome almost 20 years ago. I stayed with a host family, who lived on the 46/64 line, past the Vatican City. I learned a lot about spaghetti.
The host mom would call us to the dining table when the water was boiling. If we weren’t moving fast enough, she’d say “metto giu la pasta,” which meant she was going to drop the pasta into the water. This was a warning; we had about five minutes to hot pasta on our plates, and God help you if you weren’t at the table when the pasta was ready.
We would get a small plate of spaghetti, and the simple tomato sauce clung thickly to the pasta, but the flavor wasn’t overly tomatoey or garlicky; mostly it was the smell of basil and the taste of the spaghetti itself.
They asked us once what we had for dinner back in America, and my roommate (another American student) answered that often we had spaghetti for dinner! Our host family looked at us, expecting us to talk about other courses, but my roommate confirmed their fears; American college students eat a big plate of spaghetti for dinner and THAT’S IT. They didn’t know what to make of us.
When we finished our small plate of spaghetti, they offered us more, and in the first week or so, we accepted. Later we came to understand that spaghetti was only the beginning; there were more courses to follow, including a meat, a cooked vegetable, salad, and dessert. Always there was dessert. Once we got used to the rhythm of a multi-course meal, we stopped filling up on spaghetti.
I asked my host family the proper way to eat spaghetti, and of course they told us the fork spinning technique we were all familiar with. They said we could twirl the spaghetti into a spoon held in the left hand, but that wasn’t considered very elegant. My host brother warned me that I wouldn’t want to be spinning into a spoon if I was at dinner with the president of the republic. Duly noted.
So I noticed that the spoonless technique involved spinning the spaghetti against the groove between the shallow bowl and the raised lip of the plate. So I copied their technique.
I noticed my host brother staring at my fork, and he told me I was spinning in the wrong direction. His mother looked up to watch me, and then the whole family agreed that I was spinning my fork the wrong way.
I switched the direction of my spinning fork, which felt weird in my hand, but when I lifted my fork off my plate, my spaghetti had made a neat, tight ball around the tines, with no random spaghetti noodles hanging off of it; EVERYTHING was clinging to the fork. In fact, there was too much spaghetti clinging to my fork; I had to release it all back to my plate and try again with fewer noodles.
Correct, said my host brother. I made some remark about never knowing there was a right or wrong way to spin your fork, and the Italians looked up at me with very serious faces and said, yes, there is. And then everybody kept eating.
Later in the springtime the basil started coming in, so my host mother started making pesto. She showed me how to do it in the mixer:
- extra virgin olive oil (which she insisted doesn’t make anyone fat),
- raw garlic,
- pine nuts,
- squeeze of lemon
She said that the classic recipe involved black pepper, but she doesn’t like black pepper. Dress the screaming hot al dente spaghetti with the paste, and then top with more parmeggiano and toasted pine nuts. Her secret ingredient was a squeeze of lemon, which kept the pesto green.
Last story: the Italians asked us what spaghetti was like in the US. I thought back and told them about the boxes of Leonardo spaghetti that we used to get at Costco, the spaghetti noodles were two and a half feet long. Their eyes widened and one of them said “ma tutto e piu’ grande in America,” everything’s bigger in America. That Leonardo spaghetti was pretty good, but I’m not sure what purpose it served to buy spaghetti that long.